LONDON, Dec 5 (Reuters) - U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) producer Cheniere Energy has expanded its shipping fleet with a flurry of spot vessel charters to keep up with Asian winter demand growth as spot prices LNG-AS hit three-year highs, market sources said.
Cheniere's Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana pumped out 22 cargoes last month and more are expected as it ramps up its fourth production unit, or train, with more than half of all November volumes sold to China, Japan or South Korea, according to ship-tracking data.
An 82 percent surge in Asian spot LNG prices this year, driven by robust Chinese demand, rising oil and coal prices and nuclear supply shortfalls in South Korea and Taiwan, has left producers chasing to lock in sales.
The world's biggest exporter, Qatar, entirely sold out of flexible winter LNG supply following a frenetic period of deal-making with term buyers in China and South Korea.
Cheniere, which is still bringing new production to market, has chartered seven additional LNG carriers on spot markets as firm demand stretches its existing fleet, increasingly tied up in long-haul voyages, trade and shipping sources said.
The company has fixed the Golar Snow, Golar Tundra, Energy Atlantic, Maran Gas Troy, Wilforce, Corcovado, and Clean Horizon carriers, sources said.
The charters span a variety of periods, from a single voyage to six months of employment, they said.
A Cheniere spokesman confirmed the company now has 22 ships on the water.
With Asian markets fetching a $1.80 per million British thermal units (mmBtu) premium to European hubs, the U.S. exporter may continue to keep ploughing cargoes into distant Asian markets. (Reporting by Oleg Vukmanovic; Editing by Adrian Croft)